July 22nd, 2009 by Clark Humphrey

book cover…is there can be only one contender for Most Boring Novel Subject of All Time.

I speak, of course, of novels about the lives (or lack thereof) of writers.

For the most part, us scribes are sedentary documentators and grammar geeks. Quiet folks leading ordinary existences as “home office” denizens or day-jobbers in such unglamourous places as college English departments.

Fictional writer characters often have more adventuresome lives than real-life writers, albeit sometimes to the point of incredulity.

Christopher Miller’s brilliantly funny new novel, The Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank, features not one but three fictional writers. They’re all introverted losers, and not of the loveable kind. But they’re damn funny.

The eponymous Dank is a farcical extreme of the sedentary-writer type. He’s a prolific, and mildly successful, sci-fi hack (based only superficially on Philip K. Dick). While himself obese and almost fatally lethargic at any task except writing (and sometimes even at that), his tall tales abound with rugged crimefighters, womanizing spaceship captains, and gallant adventurers.

His pathetic life and more pathetic works are recounted to us, shortly after his death, by a dueling pair of biographers, who’d both been rivals for Dank’s friendship—the annoyingly laudatory Bill Boswell and the even-more-annoyingly disdainful Owen Hirt. As they (mostly Boswell) provide alphabetically-ordered accounts of Dank’s stories and the events (and non-events) of Dank’s life, we slowly (over 522 pages) learn what went on among these three losers, then what really went on among them. Without revealing spoilers, let’s just say that both Boswell and Hirt turn out to be gravely unreliable narrators.

While Dank, Boswell, and Hirt are all dreadful writers, Miller is a terrific one.

The Cardboard Universe is chock full of allusions (to everyone from Nabokov to Vonnegut to various real sci-fi scribblers), Oulipo-esque clever writing tricks, and how’d-he-do-that surprise payoffs.

But you don’t have to know about any of Miller’s references to laugh out loud at his tale. It’s uproariously funny, especially as the world of our three antiheroes retreats to the northern California college town where they all live, then to the block surrounding Dank’s house, then (with Dank’s exile from public life) to the confines of his house, then to the insides of Boswell’s own questionable sanity.

That’s not a place as vast as the far galaxies, but it can be just as scary, and a lot more entertaining.

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